His­to­rian en­ters an oft ne­glected zone

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jim David­son

Lost Re­la­tions: For­tunes of My Fam­ily in Aus­tralia’s Golden Age By Graeme Dav­i­son Allen & Unwin, 274pp, $32.99 Fam­ily history has of­ten been de­spised by pro­fes­sion­als. Its prac­ti­tion­ers, nick­named ‘‘ge­nies’’ by li­brar­i­ans, were seen as mere chat­ter­ers by aus­tere aca­demics.

In Aus­tralia, though, they had a par­tic­u­lar tail­wind: once the na­tion­al­ism of the 1960s and 70s made con­vict an­ces­tors a source of pride — rather than some­thing best passed over in si­lence — trac­ing fam­ily history be­came an ex­plo­ration of in­volve­ment in the saga of this coun­try.

Since then, digi­ti­sa­tion has brought vast record de­posits on line, fa­cil­i­tat­ing a thor­ough­ness of search that would have been the envy of ear­lier his­to­ri­ans. So the ac­com­plished his­to­rian Graeme Dav­i­son has him­self fi­nally suc­cumbed. In Lost Re­la­tions he not only tells the story of his an­ces­tors but pushes out fam­ily history to new pa­ram­e­ters.

There are a num­ber of rea­sons why pro­fes­sional his­to­ri­ans are re­sis­tant. One is the dearth of sources: so much of life is lived be­tween those points where it is de­fined by of­fi­cial records. Dav­i­son found, for ex­am­ple, that he had no im­age of his orig­i­nal em­i­grat­ing an­ces­tors un­til they reached stout mid­dle age; and prac­ti­cally no cor­re­spon­dence.

At the same time, what might be seen as the tra­di­tion­ally more fe­male con­cerns had be­come ob­scured: re­li­gion, for ex­am­ple, plus the more in­ti­mate fam­ily history. He picks up, of one fam­ily mem­ber who lived in Colling­wood, that six of her nine chil­dren did not sur­vive even to their sec­ond birth­day. Most likely they were vic­tims of dis­eases of poverty, such as tu­ber­cu­lo­sis.

Such sharp par­tic­u­lar­i­sa­tion of a broad so­cial trend is one of the re­wards of fam­ily history. But fam­ily his­to­ries also tend to be­come em­broi­dered with myth. Dav­i­son’s was no ex­cep­tion: so­cial po­si­tion has been con­ferred ret­ro­spec­tively — one an­ces­tor was said to come from Lon­don’s fash­ion­able Berke­ley Square, rather than the Old Kent Road. There were tales of ‘‘lost mil­lions’’ and talk of vis­it­ing an an­ces­tral castle. It makes you won­der why peo­ple thought their an­ces­tors would bother to em­i­grate at all.

Nonethe­less, there was a mys­tery that acted as a hook to en­gage the his­to­rian. He was struck by the way his great-great-grand­mother never men­tioned the name of the ship she ar­rived on at Port Phillip. Most un­usual: the ship that brought you — par­tic­u­larly when it en­gen­dered three planned wed­dings in her fam­ily — had the pri­mal sym­bol­ism of the arc.

It turned out that El­iz­a­beth Fen­wick had been a needle­woman, one of the strug­gling, underpaid work­ers of Vic­to­rian Lon­don, a group with a rep­u­ta­tion for slip­ping into pros­ti­tu­tion to make ends meet. This was so great a dan­ger that a num­ber of Vic­to­rian wor­thies set about or­gan­is­ing a scheme: needlewomen of good char­ac­ter were packed off on a ship to Aus­tralia — where women were scarce, and where they might make a new life for them­selves as some­one’s wife.

So there was a taint about be­ing a needle­woman, ex­ac­er­bated by the ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances of the voy­age on the Cul­lo­den. The cap­tain was a vil­lain, and con­tin­ued to act in a way­ward fash­ion once he was in Mel­bourne. In the mean­time he had an­tag­o­nised his crew, with the re­sult that the pas­sen­gers were landed in the dark on the beach at Port Mel­bourne, with­out any as­sis­tance. The Cul­lo­den was best for­got­ten.

Stronger in the book is the coun­ter­vail­ing in­flu­ence of Method­ism. Dav­i­son is very con­scious of his Methodist her­itage, even though he recog­nises that by the time he grew up in Essendon its rit­u­als and moral­ity had sur­vived rather bet­ter than its in­spi­ra­tion.

But there it was, the faith of up to one-sev­enth of Aus­tralians, Protes­tants of the skilled work­ing class and the lower mid­dle class. These were peo­ple who val­ued the virtues of fru­gal­ity, thrift and punc­tu­al­ity — which gave them a ve­loc­ity and high achieve­ment while they main­tained a cul­ture of no drink­ing, no gam­bling, no Sun­day shop­ping or sport.

Peo­ple op­posed to these ideas called them wowsers, killjoys; but Methodists en­joyed a strong sense of com­mu­nity, and, Dav­i­son says, a real warmth.

The book ef­fec­tively ends with Dav­i­son’s grand­fa­ther — a per­son who, un­able to reach the then rar­efied heights of ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion, en­larged and sat­is­fied his in­tel­lec­tual as­pi­ra­tions by be­com­ing a printer and lay preacher. For Dav­i­son, who in­her­ited his im­pres­sive li­brary, he was a men­tor fig­ure.

This book ben­e­fits through­out from the broader per­spec­tives a trained his­to­rian can bring to fam­ily history.

The orig­i­nal mi­gra­tion of the Hewett fam­ily from ru­ral Hamp­shire, for ex­am­ple, is ex­plained not only in terms of the sud­den death of the bread­win­ning fa­ther or of the land­lord’s in­creas­ing prob­lems, but of the way the new rail­way dis­rupted the farm, and how the col­lapse in agri­cul­tural prices made it im­pos­si­ble to stay on — given the rock-solid na­ture of rents.

And there are won­der­ful asides. We need to re­mem­ber, Dav­i­son points out, that ‘‘un­til the ar­rival of the steam lo­co­mo­tive, colo­nial Vic­to­ria ran on grain. Bread and por­ridge were the main hu­man fu­els; oats and wheat chaff, along with grass, were the main sources of an­i­mal power.’’

There is a strong pres­ence of the au­thor in this book. This com­pen­sates for the lack of in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the char­ac­ters, for want of doc­u­men­ta­tion. In­stead, there is a con­stant re­port­ing back to the reader.

Dav­i­son com­mu­ni­cates his re­lief on find­ing that a par­tic­u­lar mis­cre­ant is not, when he searches fur­ther, an an­ces­tor at all. Even so, he finds one who spent some time in Mait­land jail for pass­ing a forged cheque.

He is easily em­bar­rassed by any hint of mis­de­meanour. This ex­tends to a fire in Wil­liamstown which was started ac­ci­den­tally by his great-grand­mother, and re­sulted in a death.

Af­ter 130 years, it might be thought that the tragedy could be judged to have lost all ca­pac­ity to cause any fam­ily dis­tress.

Any­one in­ter­ested in fam­ily history should read this book. In­stead of parochial­ism, it of­fers a se­ries of mi­cro­cosms. It is the work of a master prac­ti­tioner.

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